Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Has a strong and free civil society outlived its usefulness?

The complex and often improbable task of national development must be a joint effort of public and private actors. In Africa civil society organizations (CSOs)– voluntary, not for profit organizations including foundations, trusts, development and rights based organizations – have played a key role in delivering fundamental improvements in human wellbeing.

CSOs have been reliable partners for Africa’s. But something strange is happening. Over the last decade, they have faced considerable risks and restrictions. New laws, which will constrain their programs and impact, are being enacted. And yes, some African governments have proposed to limit how much money CSOs can raise from foreign sources.

Has a strong and free civil society outlived its usefulness in Africa?

African leaders have characterized CSOs as unelected, unaccountable institutions beholden to elsewhere. Sections of Kenya’s media have warned that CSOs should not expect easy accommodation by governments if they act at the behest of foreigners. Robert Mugabe views civil society as the perpetrator in chief of a regime-change agenda. In Ethiopia, CSOs that receive more than 10 percent of operational revenue from foreign sources are barred from engaging in advocacy for human rights and civic education. At the African Union Assembly, African leaders have charged that before the International Criminal Court, resolutions by African sovereign nations are subservient to opinions of civil society activists.

The plight of Africa’s CSOs has striking similarities with China’s CSOs. In 2013 China’s Communist Party accused NGOs of cultivating “anti-China forces”. Fundraising activities for NGOs must go through Government Operated Non governmental Organizations. Hence government controls how much money NGOs receive. Moreover, control over foreign funding is very tight.

Four trends could explain why the relationship between CSOs and the African leaders is becoming complicated. One, Africa’s economic renaissance has bestowed upon its leaders a defiant “Africa can do” attitude. Africa’s pride and sovereignty assertions have become impudent. The late Meles Zenawi argued that Western societies evolved without external meddling and so should Ethiopia. President Kenyatta has cautioned that Africa must be vigilant against persistent machinations from outsiders who desire to control Africa’s destiny.

Second, the rise of China as a counterweight to the West and its economic influence in Africa has encouraged African leaders to characterize the West as an imperial exploiter crashing into pits of impoverishment, and as a world police crippled by shambolic domestic dysfunction. China has been very clear about not “meddling in” governance, stating that trade and commercial interests drive its foreign policy.

Third, strong civil society with a bottom up participatory, community driven, rights based development agenda is antithetical to big results, top down, mega infrastructure development ideology of most African countries.
Four, diminishing and undermining the legitimacy of civil society, viewed as a bastion of Western hegemony, is liberating and underlines Africa’s sovereignty. Civil society is easy prey for hawkish African leaders who thirst for affirmation.

However, clamp down on civic space is unhelpful. Moreover, it cannot be business as usual for CSOs. A more complex society; rapid urbanization, globalization, rising life expectancy, and the irrepressible rise of a new middle class means citizens will increasingly look beyond government and elected representatives to respond to social needs and influence policy-making. Government must realize that civil society possesses many qualities it lacks; innovative ideas, hard-won understanding of the challenges at the community level, and trust from the local community.

CSOs must win the hearts and minds of citizens. They must move beyond the petri dish model of development, which has no potential for scaling up or catalyzing large socio-economic transformation. Through their work in varied sectors and diverse communities, CSOs effort represents excellent “development experiments”, which could demonstrate evidence of what development interventions work, where and why. Such evidence would provide a reliable basis for fiscal or social policy framing and designing interventions.

Without a strong civil society: working in livelihood and social protection programs, levels of extreme poverty in Kenya could be higher than 40 percent; maternal and child mortality could be orders of magnitude higher; more children would be out of school; we would never have known the liberating power of village savings and loans on Africa’s women. CSOs must work together and share their story of transformation.


Civil society organizations must show impact, win the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens and to prove once again to government, that it is an invaluable partner in progress.

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